By Clara Ferreira-Marques
LONDON (Reuters) - After a clean sweep at the 2011 world championships, Russia is set to cement its dominance of synchronised swimming at the 2012 Games, leaving challengers Spain, China, Canada and host Britain battling it out for the remaining spots on the podium.
Russia has outshone competitors in synchronised swimming, a mix of swimming, dance and gymnastics, since 1997, when it ended the hegemony of the United States and Canada in the sport.
Long strong in the technical routine, the Russian team scaled new heights at the 2011 world championships in Shanghai, when Russia took home all seven titles, led by world champion Natalia Ishchenko - known at home as "Michael Phelps in a skirt", after a gold haul akin to the U.S. swimming champion.
The former gymnast will, however, be looking to add to her Olympic medal count, as the Russians defend the team and duet titles.
Ishchenko has only one Olympic title, won in Beijing as part of the team - London will be her first Olympic entry as part of both the team and the duet, with partner Svetlana Romashina.
Top of the challengers' list for the two gold medals up for grabs in London is China, who took one bronze medal in Beijing but six silver medals and a bronze at the 2011 championships.
Synchronised swimming, a discipline many sports fans struggle to take seriously, requires hours of training in the pool, followed by gym and choreography work to achieve the necessary strength and perfect synchronization.
The routines are punishing, with acrobatic jumps, lung-busting periods underwater while swimmers' legs beat in perfect symmetry - all the while smiling, hair perfectly slicked back with gelatin.
A team of judges studies execution, choreography, synchronization, difficulty, interpretation and presentation.
Swimmers will seek to impress them over the course of the week with technical and free routines, sculling and split-kicking their way to music as varied as Aretha Franklin's Think, British band The Chemical Brothers, samba and a Mozart aria.
Synchronised swimming has been an Olympic discipline since the 1984 Games in Los Angeles and is one of only two that are reserved exclusively for women - the other is rhythmic gymnastics.
(Editing by Greg Stutchbury)